Suppose you went to a beautiful hotel on a pristine white beach with brilliant green palm trees swaying against an azure sky. Upon entering your room, you find wrap-around windows, so that from every side you have breathtaking views. But when you try to throw open the windows to let in the sea air, you realize that what you thought were windows are actually television screens. They aren’t even screens showing the actual beach, but just show a looping cartoon version of a beach. How would you feel?
That’s how I feel about young earth creationism. To believe in young earth creationism is to view a world that seems endlessly interesting, but is actually much less than it appears. It’s like being excited to see an iconic celebrity, but then realizing you’ve mistaken a wax figure for a real person.
Questions meant to be answered
If young earth creationism is true, then there is little to ask about the world. All questions of physical reality would have the same answer. Why does the earth have one moon while Jupiter has more than a dozen? Because God made it that way. Why is the speed of light the great constant of the universe? Because God said so. How did birds come to fly and fish come to swim? Because God made it so. Everything is the way it is because that’s the way it is.
It’s not a very satisfying answer. Just think about the moon for a moment. It’s up there in the sky every night, but how did it get there? For many years scientists assumed that the earth had somehow captured a passing celestial body and made it its own. But now scientists think that it is possible that a huge collision shattered the earth at some point and spewed matter into space. This matter congealed and became the moon.
It’s a fantastic story, but just one of many. Speaking of moons, how did Jupiter get so many, and why are they so very different from each other? Why does the planet Uranus rotate sideways? And what is gravity, and how does it hold the universe together? And how did DNA and RNA ever come about?
There are questions, so very many questions, in all branches of science. But if young earth creationism is true, there simply are not answers. In fact, young earth creationism would require the wholesale abandonment of many branches of scientific inquiry. Obviously, the first to go would be earth science, geology, astronomy, and cosmology. If the universe is newly created, then studying the physical forces which supposedly shaped it would be a fool’s errand.
Physics would largely be uprooted, at least insofar as it attempts to explain space and time, and how the interaction of matter and energy gave shape to the material world around us. The concept of the speed of light as a constant would have to be thrown overboard. If the universe is thousands of years old, yet we can see light from stars which are millions or billions of light-years away, how can we know that lightspeed stays the same? No more E=mc2, when you don’t know what c is.
Biology would be mostly abandoned, since evolution gives shape to the study of the relationships among living things. There would be no more questions about how birds developed flight, or how life itself began. There would be no more questions of how specific adaptations came about, such as the poison-skin frogs of Central America. However, biology as mere description could be continued.
Does God deceive?
Besides the effect on these specific disciplines, we would have to ask whether any physical science could be maintained. If young earth creationism is right, then the world is much like that hotel room with the screens instead of windows. The universe appears to be very old. All of our scientific disciplines which have anything to say on the topic confirm this. The science is either correct, or God has created a world that appears to be one way, but is in fact completely different. Knowing that human beings would investigate their world and learn much about it, we must conclude that God deliberately set out to create a world to fool people. If the world is deliberately constructed by God as a sham, then what confidence can we have in any “facts” we can determine about the physical world?
We might also ask, if God has deliberately created a world to fool people, what does that say about God? What confidence can we place in God if one of the main purposes of creation is deliberate deception?
Suppose on the other hand, that the universe is vastly old and that current evolutionary theory is broadly accurate. What would that tell us about God?
It would tell us that God is more powerful than we had even imagined. It would tell us that God is able to create, out of nothing, a process through which everything that He desires can come about. From the Big Bang, the universe held all that would later be. It held, in potency, the earth and the stars, quasars and black holes, the beauty of the Grand Canyon, and all the life on earth. It started a process which would eventually end in creatures which could know and love God—creatures whose natures could even be united with God in the person of Jesus Christ. In that instant of creation, all that could be was, in a sense, already there. You were there, and I was there. The Incarnation was there.
It is a wondrous thing indeed, to imagine a God who could directly create all these wonderful things, who could speak a word and everything as we know it would immediately be in place. But how much more wonderful, how much more awesome, is it to have a God who can create the initial conditions of the universe, and have everything flow from that starting instant? Catholic biologist Kenneth Miller has likened this to a billiards player. If we saw someone go around the table making shot after shot, never missing, we would be impressed. How much more impressed would we be by a player who sinks every ball with a single shot?
The literal truth of Genesis
Despite this, a Christian could still believe in the literal truth of Genesis if there were compelling reasons to read Genesis only literally. If only a literal reading made any sense, then despite any physical evidence to the contrary, we could still reasonably prefer the literal reading over the analogous reading.
The problem is, there is no compelling reason to read Genesis literally, but there is a compelling reason not to read it literally. Genesis makes no literal sense. For example, in Genesis 1:3, God says “Let there be light.” God says this while the earth is “without form, and void”. But speaking words implies a material utterance of sound, which needs air to carry it and a language in which to speak. As St. Augustine writes in The Literal Meaning of Genesis, “But every such utterance is produced by the speaker for the benefit of the sense of hearing in the ear of the hearer. This faculty has been made to perceive sound with the impact of air on the sense organ. Shall we say, then, that there was such a sense of hearing in that formless and shapeless creation, whatever it was, to which God thus uttered a sound when He said, Let there be light? Let such absurdities have no place in our thoughts.” (Book One, Chapter 9, #16)
Another problem raised by St. Augustine is, what does it mean to say that days and nights existed for three days before the sun was created? Inasmuch as we understand day to mean a time when the sun is shining on our section of the earth and night to mean a time when it is not shining on us, what can “day” mean before the sun exists? St. Augustine writes on this problem, “Even if there existed the light which was first created, and even if we assume it was a corporeal light, it is difficult to discover any solution to propose for this problem. … if the light first created enveloped the earth on all sides … it could not be followed anywhere by night, because it did not vacate any place to make room for night.” (Book One, Chapter 12, #24)
So, if we must treat God speaking words as analogous and if we must treat the night time and daylight hours as analogous, why then must we treat the entirety of creation in seven 24 hours periods literally? There seems to be no reasonable basis for doing so.
Why would any Christian insist on a literal reading of Genesis if it leaves us with a God who is less powerful and more deceptive than the God of the Big Bang? Perhaps it is because they think that a young earth would “prove” God. But would it? Has any atheist ever converted after being convinced that the earth is young?
The role of faith and reason
In any case, a young earth does not logically prove the existence of God. There were, after all, atheists before evolutionary theory. People can decide to believe or not believe in God. No fact is going to force them. Faith is a gift, not a syllogism.
Even if someone might be convinced of the existence of God by a young earth, it would certainly not prove anything about Christianity. A person might be prompted to embrace Deism—the idea that God did indeed create the universe, but now simply leaves it alone and does not care what happens. As far as a Christian is concerned, Deism cannot be considered much of an improvement over atheism.
Christianity is not merely a matter of belief, but a matter of practice. Christianity cannot be believed without a willingness to put it into practice. If someone is unwilling to live as a Christian, he will certainly find a reason not to believe in Christ. In that sense, we might say that when someone states “I do not believe” he really means “I will not serve.” No supposed science will change this.
Although Christianity is reasonable, reason alone cannot bring belief. Faith is a gift. Reason can lay a foundation, but faith alone builds the house.
We must consider as well the possibility that, although young earth creationism will not bring faith to anyone, it may turn them away from faith. It may be that if a reasonable non-believer is told that faith mandates a young earth, the person will perceive the Christian faith as an unreasonable and necessarily untrustworthy proposition.
St. Augustine gave this warning to Christians about denying physical truths: “Usually, even a non-Christian knows something about the earth, the heavens, and the other elements of this world, about the motion and orbit of the stars and even their size and relative positions, about the predictable eclipses of the sun and moon, the cycles of the years and the seasons, about the kinds of animals, shrubs, stones, and so forth, and this knowledge he holds to as being certain from reason and experience. Now, it is a disgraceful and dangerous thing for an infidel to hear a Christian, presumably giving the meaning of Holy Scripture, talking non-sense on these topics; and we should take all means to prevent such an embarrassing situation, in which people show up vast ignorance in a Christian and laugh it to scorn. The shame is not so much that an ignorant individual is derided, but that people outside the household of the faith think our sacred writers held such opinions, and, to the great loss of those for whose salvation we toil, the writers of our Scripture are criticized and rejected as unlearned men. If they find a Christian mistaken in a field which they themselves know well and hear him maintaining his foolish opinions about our books, how are they going to believe those books in matters concerning the resurrection of the dead, the hope of eternal life, and the kingdom of heaven, when they think their pages are full of falsehoods on facts which they themselves have learnt from experience and the light of reason? Reckless and incompetent expounders of holy Scripture bring untold trouble and sorrow on their wiser brethren when they are caught in one of their mischievous false opinions and are taken to task by those who are not bound by the authority of our sacred books. For then, to defend their utterly foolish and obviously untrue statements, they will try to call upon Holy Scripture for proof and even recite from memory many passages which they think support their position, although ‘they understand neither what they say nor the things about which they make assertion.'” (Augustine, The Literal Meaning of Genesis, vol. 1, ch.19.)
If we lose young earth creationism, we lose a puerile understanding of the power of the Almighty. We lose a parlour game trickster who makes us believe that sleight of hand is real magic. But if we give up on young earth creationism, we gain a world to know, and a God to know better.
Link to St. Augustine’s book:
41. St. Augustine, Vol. 1: The Literal Meaning of Genesis (Ancient Christian Writers)
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